An explosion that shows why fluorine is "the tiger of chemistry"

Fluorine has a dangerous reputation. It's been nicknamed "the tiger of chemistry" because it has killed so many chemists. We're going to show you one of its most volatile explosions, and explain how it nearly killed one of the first researchers to work with it.

Fluorine is one of the halogens. Halogen means "salt former," which doesn't sound so terrible. The members of this group, including chlorine, bromine, and iodine, form a great deal of useful salts, and are often used as disinfectants. The only trick was people had to treat them with care, as they could be a bit excitable.

Fluorine never seems to run out of ways to kill researchers. It tends to form acids easily, which means it eats through whatever early chemists used to contain it. Once it's out, it is poisonous all on its own, but it can combine with other elements to form other poisonous chemicals. One particularly unpleasant combination, hydrogen fluoride, destroys tissues on contact, particularly the corneas of the eyes. Oh, and it explodes.

Combining hydrogen and chlorine creates a compound that explodes when even slightly perturbed, and even when exposed to sunlight. Hydrogen and fluorine will explode without any contact and in complete darkness. Plenty of labs and chemical processing plants have been rocked by hydrogen and fluorine explosions. (In one case, fluorine started eating into its own containment canister, which created hydrogen gas, which exploded the canister.) Once the combination explodes, it releases a great deal of that unpleasant hydrogen fluoride gas — meaning it can kill people two different ways with the same reaction.

Fluorine racked up quite a few deaths when it came to early chemists. Many, including Sir Humphrey Davy, were poisoned. Several died. Two brothers were poisoned by the same experiment, and one was bedridden for three years. But George Gore really took the cake. He was the type of chemist who enjoyed working with highly explosive chemicals, and knew very well from his research with chlorine and hydrogen what would happen with fluorine and hydrogen. After creating a few containment vessels for fluorine, all of which were destroyed, he went ahead and combined the two elements anyway. The resulting explosion demolished much of his lab and nearly poisoned him, but because fortune sometimes favors the reckless, he escaped unharmed. Today, there are still explosions due to the accidental mixing of hydrogen and fluorine. And, as we see in the video, there are occasional explosions due to the deliberate mixing of hydrogen and fluorine, so in some way George Gore's spirit lives on.

Image: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com

[Via Lateral Science, UCSF, ChemGuide]